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The Watanabes: Tales of Indie Success in Tokyo

You’ve heard of The Watanabes, surely? Everyone has. You’ve got Selwyn Walsh on guitars, likkle brother Duncan Walsh on vocals, Ashley Davies (great surname!) on bass, and Stefan Samuelsson on keyboards. Over the past couple of years, these friendly chaps have been in and out of Japanzine like they’re perpetually stuck in the revolving doors at the entrance to JZ HQ.

More importantly for them, in that time they’ve also managed to become a successful indie band on the Tokyo live circuit, have appeared on national television, and – get this – their Independent Social Power album is sitting snugly on the shelves of Tower Records. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, you’ll be able to find The Watanabes playing at Gaijin Sounds LIVE! in Tokyo on October 24th. Time for a chat!

Jonti Davies: Can you briefly explain how you got from Norfolk to Tokyo via Shikoku?

Duncan: Well, let’s get one thing straight – not all of us come from Norfolk! Ash is a vaguely proud Kiwi and Stefan comes from the dark forests of Northern Sweden. We also used to have a beautiful blond Belgian on drums, but much to the disappointment of our female followers he had to head home. Ash, Sel and I came to Japan on the JET programme and the band was born in Ehime. In 2007 we made it into Japanzine’s Battle of the Bands’ "Best of the Rest" and then we knew that our destiny was calling us: the Tokyo underground.

JD: How did you get your first ever gig in Japan, and what was it like?

Duncan: Our first gig was in a very sweaty little bar in Matsuyama, in front of a packed audience of socially and sexually frustrated JETs. We were awful, but they were hammered and an audience who had travelled hours from the depths of the Ehime inaka weren’t gonna let a dodgy band spoil their Saturday night: The gig was an unprecedented success and The Watanabes were convinced that they were the next Beatles.

JD: Have people been surprised when they learn that the "Watanabes" are in fact not Japanese? How has that name worked out for you?

Duncan: I wouldn’t say they were surprised. Perhaps more… bemused. The name. Well, it might be easy to scoff at but it’s worked out brilliantly! Why? Well, because it is just impossible to forget. Go on – forget it! I bet you can’t. I’ve got to admit, sometimes we do feel a bit lame about the Smiths connotations, particularly considering they are one of our favorite bands. Nevertheless, as one trusted friend said to us, "I like it. It’s the same, but different." That’s basically what people like, right?

JD: Fair point. So what are some of the biggest difficulties you’ve faced during your time in Japan?

Selwyn: Probably tuning our guitars.

JD: Touché! One of your biggest recent successes came with the CD distribution deal you signed with Tower Records – how did that come about?

Ash: We made a fan by the name of Kengo, who was so enthusiastic about the CD that he decided to rev up the engine on his budding record label, Babyboom Records Japan, and give us a hand. A few months later, after weaving his Iwamoto magic on the big boys upstairs, we were proudly displayed alongside our contemporaries, Wilco, the White Stripes and Westlife. What makes us happiest of all is that we’ve managed to do this as a completely independent band. As a wise magazine editor once said, "The Watanabes – only if you’re indie in the truest sense."

JD: Do you intend to remain independent for ever, and what would be the pros and cons of doing so?

Duncan: Just the other day I was watching the Japanese Charts on TV, marveling at how synthetic and repetitive the music was. As I looked into Ayumi Hamasaki’s alien eyes it struck me – this country needs something REAL! It needs indie music. Something that’s not produced merely for the purpose of making money. If anything, the closer we’ve come in contact with the industry here, the more we have embraced our independence. In fact, we’ve just started our own record label with a couple of bands from the UK: Favourite Tree Records.

Ash: In adult life, I guess its been a bit of a disappointment to discover the excess of situations where you’re expected, encouraged or obligated to act and do things in a particular way. One of the great
things about being in The Watanabes is that it provides a bit of shelter from that sort of environment. Even more so because we’re such good friends. We not only get to sit in the bus together, we can also drive it. Not always that well, but drive it nonetheless, and that is extremely satisfying and fun. I guess the downside is that driving that bus around Tokyo and getting it to go at the speed we want it to requires a lot of time and effort, and tends to sometimes keep us away from our instruments. So if someone was willing to offer us modest salaries, some pats on the back and perhaps a backyard cricket facility in exchange for an occasional, closely supervised chance to drive the bus, we’d probably be willing to listen.

JD: Well you know what they say about buses… Now, how about Japanese indie bands? Have you been able to make any Japanese comrades in the local indie scene? Is there a mutual respect out there between gaijin and nihonjin indie folk?

Selwyn: I’d say we’ve received a mixture of reactions on the Tokyo indie circuit… bemusement, hostility, surprise, excitement, disappointment, admiration and friendly indifference. For the most part, however, our experiences have been positive, and Japanese indie rockers have been everything you’d expect from Japanese people, gracious and polite! Truth is, most J-indie folk are in the same boat as us, working long hours in low paid jobs in order to pursue their passion, and that makes for a certain amount of mutual respect, at least.

JD: Although it didn’t quite make the Top Ten of this year’s Gaijin Sounds, "Hot Water Hills" sounded to me like a minor reinvention… almost Sunflower-era Beach Boys. How would you say your sound has evolved while you’ve been in Japan, and where do you intend to take it from here?

Ash: I wouldn’t say we were that familiar with the Beach Boys, but we have definitely been trying to make harmonies and colorful shirts a more important part of our lives. Adding Stefan on keyboards has also altered our direction, making us sound slightly more like the latest Swedish Eurovision entry. He has also encouraged us to think more carefully about our arrangements and tempos. Our greatest yet unfulfilled ambition is to write a song that people really want to dance to.

For more Watanabes goodness, click your way up to myspace.com/thewatanabes and www.favouritetree.com

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